Former Senator Gerald Long and Senator Bill Cassidy are hosting a broadband tour, bringing the discussion about expanding high speed internet access to parishes in Northeast, Northwest and Central Louisiana. Long and Stephanie McKenzie from Cassidy’s office in Shreveport held a meeting on March 9 with mayors from towns and villages in Natchitoches Parish, Parish President John Richmond, and representatives from the Natchitoches Regional Medical Center, Natchitoches Parish School Board, Natchitoches Community Alliance, and the City of Natchitoches.
Long impressed upon everyone the importance of taking ownership, becoming organized by forming a commission or board to oversee this project and leaving politics out of it. He suggested that members should represent first responders, 9-1-1, the school board, Northwestern State University, the Central Louisiana Technical Community College, the Natchitoches Regional Medical Center, Agriculture, Forestry, Real Estate Agents, City and Parish Government Officials, State Senators and State Representatives, someone who knows how to write grants, someone in utility services (SWEPCO), and someone in the Communications Business (EpicTouch or AT&T).
“This will work when the community works as one voice,” he said. “You’re a marathon runner who’s just now starting the race. “You need to make sure that everyone in the community is represented and that everyone has a seat at the table.”
This broadband expansion tour comes on the heels of the announcement that Natchitoches Parish was allocated $13,456,731in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction to provide high speed internet to 4,733 unserved/underserved locations. Eligible locations include areas around the rural communities of Goldonna, Lakeview, Fairview Alpha, Clarence, and Readhimer. The winning bidders in Natchitoches Parish were Segnem Egere Consortium, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, and AMG Technology Investment Group.
The winning bidders have 6 years to complete the build out, but there are significant incentives to complete the work faster. The FCC website contains an interactive map that allows addresses to be entered to determine if that location is eligible for funding and who the winning bidder for that particular census tract was. The interactive map can be found here – https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/rdof-phase-i-dec-2020/.
The Village of Goldonna celebrated on Feb. 28 the fact that Goldonna Elementary and Jr. High will soon have access to high speed internet.
Waskom went on to say that the lines are fiber optic and not copper which provides more reliability for the users. He also shared that the contract that was awarded was $750,000. Ninety percent of that was sitting in reserves in Baton Rouge and identified for Natchitoches Parish. The School Board was responsible for the other 10 percent. The money officially can be used for broad-band expansion.
The School District also stated that there are other places in the Parish that they would like to bring the same service to in the very near future. Provencal, Marthaville, Robeline and Cloutierville are on the radar to receive these services. Even though the school in Cloutierville is closed there are still students who reside in the area who need connectivity.
At Tuesday’s meeting School Board Business Affairs Director Lee Waskom informed the gathering that they plan to have Goldonna connected by September. The goal is to have everything done in the next two and a half years.
The Natchitoches Regional Medical Center received a grant last year to grow its telemedicine capabilities, but residents need access to high speed internet so they can utilize this service.
“I want this [expanding broadband access to the rural areas of the parish] to be the next thing we all get behind,” said Richmond. “We’re going to have to dedicate some real conversations to this initiative.”
Long said he can see the timeline to bring high speed internet access to all areas of the parish occurring within a three year period.
“This will help bring economic development to the area,” he added. “It’s not going to be easy but if we all work together things will begin to fall into place.”